Memory Is a Fragile and Fickle Thing

Fragments of memory shimmer like shards of glass in the sun. How do I make sense of them? How do I glue them together into a coherent vessel of story? Where is the thread of shared meaning?

“You remember the time we went to that party at the Myers’ house on the fourth of July?”
“No. Who were they?”
“You remember — I worked with Jerry in 1978 for a couple of years, and they had those dogs ...”
“Oh, yeah. His wife was Marilyn. But I never would have thought of that if you hadn’t mentioned it.”

“I still get mad every time I think of the way Max refused to ... ”
“Have you ever stopped to think that if he had done things your way, you
never would have ...?”
“No. I never thought of it that way!”

I didn’t play or listen to a particular Kingston Trio album for several years after a high school party one night, where I sat snuggled up with a fellow I’d had my eye on for awhile. Six or seven years later, I found a copy on a clearance table and picked it up for next to nothing. As I listened to “Tom Dooley” and the MTA song, and all those others, I was right back in that darkened party room, sitting shoulder to shoulder with my heartthrob, and oh, my! My heart raced all over again, and the memory of his body heat warmed my right arm. But alas! After spinning that platter a couple of dozen times, I began remembering about remembering and no longer felt the intensity of the original passion. Today that string of listenings is indelibly imprinted in the memory and the original party is a dim image at the end of a long tunnel, showing the forms of two young people I hardly feel I know.

On some core level, we all know that memory is a fragile and fickle thing, yet we have a strong need to believe that it’s dependable, stable, and meaningful. In a very real way, our memories define who we are.

New discoveries about the way memory works continue to flow forth from neuroscience labs. These discoveries are beginning to shake that belief in the stability of memory. Stephanie West Allen, author of the Brains On Purpose blog, posted a link the other day on the Life Writers Forum to an article on the Science site. The article, False Memories Affect Behavior, details the ease with which we can form false memories that are so real, we’d go to the wall to defend them. Other articles on the page shed further light on this and related topics.

So, if memory is so easily warped, so plastic and fluid, can we believe anything we remember? What’s the value of our memories?

My current understanding (subject to the next round of scientific discoveries), is that whatever memories we believe to be real are the ones that shape who we are today, and how we’ll interact, make decisions, and interpret our perceptions. They still define who we are, and that person we are today will change a bit, evolve gradually, as our memories develop, mature, fade and morph.

However we remember them, writing about those memories will help order them in threads of meaning. It will help us discover previously elusive memories, and shed new light on old ones. If those memories take on a rich patina from running through our fingers and neurons time after time, they’ll glow more brightly for having done so.

Although I’ll continue to loosely follow developments in memory research, I’ll hold fast to the ones I have and not worry about their basis in documentable fact, whatever that may be. After all, I am my father’s daughter, and he has long held to the tenet, “Don’t let a few facts get in the way of a good story.” So why should I be concerned about a few warped memories?

Write now: about times when your memories have morphed and merged into a stream of related ones. Have you replayed a specific memory so often that you became confused about the original event? How much do your memories overlap with those of your mate or siblings? Which memories are real? (That’s a trick question!)


Pat's Place said...

Two thoughts came to mind as I read your latest article on memory: #1) My sister and I cleaned out our mother's house a few years ago and shared our memories of growing up there. However, we found that our memories of the same events were often radically different--filtered by our different experiences. #2) The writing groups that I lead are wonderful for stimulating the return of memories. I cannot tell you how many times I have let the group share their stories and had someone say, "Oh, I remember that same thing happening in our family but..." and a new story is ready to be written--a new memory triggered.

Ritergal said...

Pat, it sounds as if you and your sister may have grown up in "different families" as my sister and I did. Realizing and accepting that we could both be "right" when our memories of the same thing were so different was far beyond anything either of us knew how to explain at that point, and ever so liberating.

Isn't it funny how it sometimes takes Science to validate what we've "known" all along?

Tara said...

This is so very true. When I moved this last time, I realized how many memories I had literally forgotten over the years. Since I am somewhat of a pack-rat when it comes to letters and photographs, I was fortunate enough to find many triggers that restored some of my fondest memories.

Ritergal said...

I live with a pack rat, and tend to the other extreme, partly in due to lack of space for two such critters under our one roof, and partly out of self-righteousness.

That being said, our grandson noticed that we "live in a museum" because everything in the room has a story attached.

So, lucky you to find so many stories!

Imprinted Pens said...

This is a brilliant post, i was looking into it because we had a reunion and i had realized how many things i had forgotten, things i might have not wanted to remember and maybe i was trying to block that part of my life out, but it was nice to be reminded of the good things.


Ritergal said...

Serena, after enough years pass, the pain dulls, and sometimes it's possible to see hidden blessings in the obstacles that nearly crushed us at the time. Attending a reunion is a glorious way to help that happen. You may look at someone who was a heartthrob back then and see a gray old sourpuss. The cheerleaders may have doubled their weight and have double chins under their brassy blond hair. Some will look great. Some will have had surprising success, others will be hot air bags.

But you'll all be glad to see each other because you were there then, and by now, then may look better than it did back when.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy that reunion!